ORGIES! TORTURE! The corruption of the pope! Castration! The evil eye! The Washington Monument! The Washington Monument? Yes, that staid monster on the Mall, which never fails to mildly disappoint those who make the effort to visit its top, is an obelisk, according to Peter Tompkins.

If it's an obelisk, that means that, well, anything can happen and already has--the most scandalous obeliskoid goings-on, starting with Egyptians, says Tompkins, who is one of the authors who caused such a stir by advising readers to chat up their shrubbery in "The Secret Life of Plants" a few years back.

Now obelisks. As in "The Magic of Obelisks," 462 pages of obeliskery not to be confused with the pyramidology of "Secrets of the Great Pyramid," or "Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids."


"It's a political book," says Tompkins, in an English accent that imbues a lot of what he says with an italicized fatigue, as if he were saying "Of course" for the 27th time in an hour. "One can only do one's bit. As long as there is a republic, one has to try. All my books are are purely political."

The plant book?

"Of course. It's a plan to turn the planet back into a garden."

A garden. Well, this gets into the age of Saturn, before the planet shifted axis, and it was "eternal springtime up to the 60th parallel," Tompkins will explain, not to mention free love, disporting oneself in Arcadia, etc. He's not entirely sure when the age of Saturn was. He says, in a tone of amazement: "That's the thing that nobody can pinpoint." But it isn't now, that's for sure.

"Do you realize that one-quarter of Holland is paved over? I'm highly political. I'm just hoping not to get caught by the Inquisition."

The Inquisition?

"It's still around, my friend--it's the international alliance of right-wing thugs. It's the most Byzantine, complex conspiracy to foment war instead of peace. They're lunatics! They're my next book!" he says with a significant hike of white faun eyebrows, which seem to be injection-molded out of the same magnificent stuff that makes his faultless mutton-chop whiskers, his mustache, his Van Dyke beard.

He will yield no more details on the Inquisition being after him, except that his fears are no doubt baroque with detail, he being the author of "The Eunuch and the Virgin," which he describes as "a history of castration as a political weapon." Castration is much on his mind. He describes the end of the sunny age of Saturn as a "castration in the sky," when we started to get changes in the seasons.

Tompkins is carrying his crusade forward with obelisks, this time out.

Local boy makes esoteric: He writes and lives in a converted barn in McLean, with a study "100 feet long. I have a dozen desks, easily, and a book going on each one of them. Whatever will not bore me is where I sit down in the morning. I cannot tolerate boredom." He is 62. He was born in Georgia and raised in Italy by artist parents who were friends of George Bernard Shaw, who paid Tompkins' tuition at English schools after the crash of '29.

The road to obeliskery, and all the conspiracy and carnality attendant on it, began in World War II, when Tompkins was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services behind the lines in Italy. "I had access to top secret stuff," he says. "I realized that whoever was running this planet was not doing a very good job."

Still, it's hard for the uninitiated to associate our very own Washington Monument, dull and dignified as old George himself, with all this huggermugger.

The idea comes through most powerfully in the book's illustrations. The book is, as they used to say with a wink, "profusely illustrated." Obelisks seem to be connected, albeit indirectly, with infinite varieties of tortures, brandings, black masses, autos da fe, and a collection of hieroglyphic erotica.

These are flanked by text which reveal some of the great moments in the history of obelisks.

Michelangelo, for instance, was once asked why he opposed the idea of raising Caligula's obelisk in St. Peter's Square.

Said The Master: "What if it breaks?"

When it was being raised, the ropes hauling it upward got so hot that it may well have been only the naive genius of a small boy that saved the day. As Tompkins tells it: "A boy is said to have shattered the silence of the great piazza with the cry of 'Moisten the lines.' "

Tompkins illuminates the times with descriptions of popes "unleashing on Christian women a pack of sex-starved clerics," along with a persecution in which "pederasts were burned alive, as was a baker, for inferior bread."

No small amount of genius has gone into the discovery of ancient obelisks. In Rome, "an enterprising fellow named Matteo Bartalani da Castello" is credited with inventing the tool that located Constantius obelisk. It wasn't just a rod to stick in the ground, it was a rod with "a sharp point for easier penetration and a ring handle for easier withdrawal."

Not to mention countless cabalists, Cathars, Manichees, Gnostics, Sufis and Free Masons working away at obeliskan philosophies, encoding it all in Shakespeare's plays . . . Not to mention the "perversely sensuous" women of of Provence, orgone-theorist Wilhelm Reich, witchcraft's own Aleister Crowley, and so on till you'd be ashamed to take the kids up to the top of the Washington Monument.

No wonder the Inquisition is after Tompkins!

"They have these hit men, all over the country. They train them and leave them where they want them. They pay them $50,000 a year for life and when they need them . . . ."

Tompkins need say no more, but with a knowing look that should be immediately intelligible to anyone living in the proximity of the biggest obelisk in the world, he lifts his hand and Pop! snaps his fingers.

Just like that. And if you don't think so, ask your shrubbery.